Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Comics Panel: October 27, 2008

Co-created by the late Steve Gerber and Mary Skrenes, Marvel's Omega The Unknown was an oddball title even in the seemingly anything-goes world of '70s comic books, which also allowed Gerber's Howard The Duck to become a brief sensation. Featuring a main character who discovers his parents are robots and shares an unexplained connection with a superhero named Omega, its brief, inconclusive run left puzzled fans to wonder what would have happened. Among them: novelist Jonathan Lethem (Fortress Of Solitude) who, working with co-writer Karl Rusnak and illustrator Farel Dalrymple, revived the character for a 10-issue miniseries recently collected as a hardback. It's a winningly peculiar project that keeps many elements of the original project while putting its own self-aware spin on things. Riffing on teen mysteries, superheroes, omniscient narrators, and—in a wordless final chapter—the very notion of ending a story, it's often more puzzling than conventionally satisfying. But, as in Lethem's genre-bending early novels, the puzzles can be part of the reward, and both the weird narrative and Dalrymple's appealing art invited repeat reads… B+

Batman's popularity has ebbed and risen over the years, reaching a high-water mark in 1966 when the Batman TV series made the Dark Knight an international pop-culture phenomenon, becoming such a sensation that the character started to take on a life of his own. Assembled and designed by lifelong Batman fan Chip Kidd, photographer Geoff Spear, and Batman collector Saul Ferris, Bat-Manga!: The Secret History Of Batman In Japan (Pantheon) chronicles a lost chapter from that moment, collecting the Batman comics of manga artist Jiro Kuwata, who drew Batman adventures for the Japanese market when the series hit the airwaves. Kuwata had only a passing familiarity with the superhero, so apart from some key elements—Robin, the Batcave, a suspiciously youthful-looking Commissioner Gordon—the stories have more in common with early manga than what was happening in the American Gotham of the time. Thus we get Batman taking on villains like Professor Gorilla and Dr. Faceless, Robin toting a gun (albeit a tranquilizer gun), and other oddities. The immaculately designed book, filled out with photos of rare Japanese Batman collectibles, often feels like listening to cover of a popular song that gets many of the notes wrong, but puts its own catchy stamp on the material… A

Years from now, Brian Azzarello and Lee Bermejo's graphic novel Joker (DC) may wind up being remembered as the first attempt to make the Joker from the blockbuster movie The Dark Knight into the standard version. Joker's Joker has the long trenchcoat and scarred smile that Heath Ledger sported onscreen, and like the movie Joker, the graphic-novel version is preoccupied with organizing and commanding the scattered criminal enterprises of Gotham City. But while Bernejo's pencils (inked by Mick Gray and colored by Patricia Mulvihill) evoke an effectively seedy underworld of supervillains and their lackeys, Azzarello's story is tedious beyond relief. The book begins by introducing the Joker-worshipping small-time crook Jonny Frost, who follows the Joker around from meeting to meeting with Gotham's major players (The Penguin, The Riddler, etc.), and gradually comes to realize that his boss isn't going to reward his devotion. Aside from the chance to see different interpretations of Batman's rogues' gallery, there's not much going on here—just typical superhero nihilism, pointlessly dark and bloody… D+


You don't have to have played the videogame Prince Of Persia in any of its many incarnations to read Prince Of Persia: The Graphic Novel (First Second), which comes with its own surprisingly dense literary vision and conceits. But fans of the game might have more of a stake in the book, and might be more likely to rise to its challenges. It operates in two timelines that parallel and inform each other: In the 9th-century plotline, three royal children raised together are caught in a struggle for power, and one ends up exiled outside the city with a weird talking spirit-bird. In the 13th-century plotline, a princess cuts off her hair and leaves her palace to see the world. The lines of comparison that Iranian author A.B. Sina draws between the two stories pull them so close that at times they get muddled, and both stories are so discursive and slack that it's often hard to discern a point. Somewhere between The Arabian Nights and Joann Sfar's The Rabbi's Cat—another wandering book that fetches up in odd places—Prince Of Persia sometimes seems to lose its way, but its strong characters and high adventure help reward careful re-reads. Or in game terms, it comes with a high replay value… B

Reclusive cartoonist Bill Watterson wrote the foreword for the first collection of Richard Thompson's Cul De Sac (Andrews McMeel), and that's apt, because Thompson's strip is the best thing to happen to the daily comics page since Watterson retired Calvin & Hobbes. After spending a couple of years developing Cul De Sac as a weekly in The Washington Post, Thompson launched the strip as a syndicated daily last September. The comic follows the adventures of the suburban Otterloop family, and in particular Alice, a perpetually wired preschooler who spends her days bossing around her classmates, her afternoons trying to comprehend her finicky older brother Petey, and her evenings befuddling her well-meaning parents. Though sassy-kid strips aren't exactly a rarity, Thompson has a knack for heightening the mundane details of post-toddler suburban life—chirpy teachers, eccentric children's-book authors, enormous fast-food-restaurant play structures, and so on—until they rise to the level of absurdity. The first Cul De Sac book contains the original weeklies and the first few months of dailies, though the strip doesn't really find its rhythm until the dailies start. It doesn't take long for Thompson to figure out how to work in gags about the pile of snow (known as "Old Mount Soot") that rises in the grocery-store parking lot every year, and how in school, "neatness plus creativity equals art." Once Thompson gets into a groove, he produces one of the few strips around where nearly every individual panel is standalone delight… A-

Nothing in Michael Kupperman's Tales Designed To Thrizzle #4 (Fantagraphics) will surprise anyone who bought the previous three installments, but since no one does giddy pop surrealism quite like Kupperman, it's always cause for celebration when he completes another issue. Need further convincing? Consider the ad for Indian Spirit Chewing Gum ("Haunted With Real Dead Indian Flavor"), or the tales of Sam Spread: Sandwich Spread-Obsessed Detective, or the pitches for Taco Repair ("You'd swear it was a new taco!") and Gay Yokels. ("Fine dining for the hillbilly homosexual!") All this, plus Snake 'N' Bacon too. What could be more thrizzling?… A

Los Bros Hernandez's long-running Love And Rockets series enters another phase with Love And Rockets: New Stories #1 (Fantagraphics), which re-launches the book as an annual square-bound paperback rather than a quarterly magazine. The new format gets off to a good start, too, with an eclectic assortment of one-off Gilbert Hernandez stories (plus one by Gilbert and eldest brother Mario) flanked by the first two parts of a new Jaime Hernandez serial. The Gilbert stories offer his typical blend of Central American realism and wild fantasy, highlighted by a 12-pager in which a comedy team fashioned after Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis travels the galaxy, fighting aliens. But Jaime stretches beyond his usual style this time out, working some of the minor characters in his ongoing L.A. soap opera into an epic story of aging superheroes working through decades-old grudges. It's been a long time since Love And Rockets dealt so fully with the "rockets" side of the equation, and it's heartening to know that the Hernandez brothers still feel free to take their comic whether the mood strikes them… A-


David Heatley's scratchy art and "here's everything in my head at the moment" approach to comics have made him controversial, but it's hard to dispute the sheer bravado of his first major collection, My Brain Is Hanging Upside Down (Pantheon), which combines a handful of "dream comics" with Heatley's oft-anthologized, excruciatingly detailed examinations of sex, race, and family life. Heatley's "Portrait Of My Mom" and "Portrait Of My Dad" are the most relatable pieces here, collecting a hundred tiny details about his parents into a sweet but revealing collage. His exhaustive "Sex History" is a little tougher to take, since Heatley's sexually adventurous years were a little wilder than most (and because he's made the odd decision to cover up all the explicit sex acts in the book with incongruous pink bars). But Heatley is to be commended for "Black History," an unflinching look at how his racial attitudes were formed through decades of encounters in different multi-racial settings, from church camps to Brooklyn slums. Perhaps Heatley could've turned all these autobiographical details into something resembling a narrative, rather than just laying them all out in a series of tiny panels, strung one after the other. But there's something liberating about the approach of My Brain Is Hanging Upside Down. It's clearly therapeutic for Heatley to put everything he remembers down on paper, whether it makes him look good or bad. The absence of waffling—the unsparing honesty—is awfully refreshing… B+

The latest entry in the huge pile of books drawn from popular websites, Garfield Minus Garfield gathers a bunch of Dan Walsh's webcomic strips that erase the sarcastic cat from the still-inexplicably popular comic-page warhorse created by Jim Davis. For people who haven't regularly read Garfield since childhood, there's an initial wave of shocked humor at just how existential and creepy the Garfield-free strips can get. It's a little odd to see Garfield's owner Jon talking to himself, and odder yet how everything he says seems tinged with suicidal despair when his lameness is the strip's focus, rather than Garfield's reaction to it. It's a fine form of deconstruction, encouraging readers to look past the rote setup-setup-punchline format and actually see the characters again. Problem is, in book form, the joke pales quickly, and Walsh has to keep reaching further, well past the strips where the conceit really works. The book (officially sanctioned by Jim Davis, and published by Ballantine Books alongside the Garfield strip collections, and in the same format) adds in the original strips underneath the altered ones, so readers can see what got removed; that satisfies a lot of curiosity, but also winds up feeling like a magic show where the magician explains each trick in detail as he's doing them. By the end of the book, what mostly sticks is how little Garfield's contributions actually add to Garfield, and how pat and dull the strip's humor is… B-


Spiderwick Chronicles co-creator Holly Black breaks into comics with The Good Neighbors, Vol. 1: Kin (Graphix) which follows a bit too closely in the footsteps of Jamie McKelvie's recently collected Suburban Glamour. The story follows a teenager who learns she's related by blood to Faerie; when her oddball mother disappears and her father is suspected of murder, she mopes over her relationship with each of her parents, but doesn't do much about the situation, which develops around her. The book's aimless, wandering feel has more in common with the real-life teen years than with the usual comic-book wish-fulfillment tale—or than the more proactive, relatively exciting Spiderwick books—which makes it feel like a lost installment from DC's now-defunct Minx line. (So does the protagonist's ill-defined friend group, and their guerilla-art project of photographing themselves in animal masks in abandoned spaces.) But that tone also never proves particularly gripping or vital, and the book peters out with no feeling that anything important has happened. The book does get a lot of help from art by Ted Naifeh, but while his renditions of teen faeries and creatures of the night are a lot of fun, readers can have the same art with more compelling storylines in the Courtney Crumrin series he writes as well as illustrates… C+

In his back-page "intro" to Unknown Soldier #1 (Vertigo), writer Joshua Dysart admits, "Any way you slice it, there's something inherently immoral about crafting a sensitive, exciting, anti-war piece of pop entertainment that claims a love for a people while using the worst aspects of their lives to create drama." But Dysart and artist Alberto Ponticelli navigate those straits remarkably well in their update of a classic DC war comic, by creating a problematic hero who internalizes these contradictions. The new Unknown Soldier is a Ugandan-born doctor who returns home to tend to refugees, and discovers a rage inside him that makes him want to attack the cause of Ugandan suffering at its root, by taking up arms against the warring militant factions. (This doctor's credo: First, do harm.) The "Unknown" in this Unknown Soldier refers as much to the conflict as the protagonist, though Dysart and Ponticelli don't spare the two-fisted action in trying to tell a story that's both relevant to the real world and viscerally exciting. If they can sustain this energy and impact, Unknown Soldier could be a new Vertigo classic… B+


The latest comics continuation of Joss Whedon's TV show Firefly, the three-issue miniseries Serenity: Better Days (Dark Horse), doesn't read any better in collected form than it did stretched out in issues; it's still choppy and confusing, fixated on chase scenes and action that don't work well on the page, and prone to pacing problems that draw out minor moments and gloss over key ones. It's no coincidence that it feels like a series of scenes from a TV show, with the vital connective tissue missing; this feels like the rough for what might have been a really great episode, but much of the character is lost without the charisma of the actors, the sense of speed and danger in the chase, and the ability to tell facial expressions apart. (It's particularly hard to tell whether Mal Reynolds is smirking, playing sincere, or actively trying to embarrass people as he vaguely alludes to his "sexual oddities.") This limited continuation of Whedon's work is better than nothing, but not by a whole lot. When the hell does Dollhouse première again?… C-

In 1978, before Art Spiegelman started working on Maus and Raw—and at a time when the market for underground comics was practically nil—he compiled some of the autobiographical stories and formal experiments that he'd been contributing to long-lost publications like Arcade, Short Order Comix, and Young Lust, and released them as the anthology Breakdowns. The book was greeted more as a contribution to New York's re-awakening modern-art scene than as a breakthrough in comics, though in retrospect, Spiegelman's deconstructions of soap operas, funny animals, pornography, detective fiction, joke books, and psychotherapy provided new ways of looking at familiar cartoon genres, and gave the generation to come a renewed sense of the medium's possibilities. The new hardcover Breakdowns: Portrait Of The Artist As A Young %@$*! (Pantheon) reprints the hard-to-find original book, and surrounds it with a freewheeling illustrated introduction (one that has Spiegelman hopping tangentially between childhood memories and career milestones) and a more straightforward afterword that explains what we've just read. After decades of Chris Ware, Los Bros Hernandez, Alan Moore, and the like, Spiegelman's exercises come off a little stiffer than they used to, but it's still remarkable to look back and witness the moment in pop history when underground comics abandoned cranking out dirty jokes for hippies, and started reaching higher… A-


Also available from Spiegelman right now is Jack And The Box, his contribution to the kid-friendly Toon Books line. Though aimed at the 6-and-under set, this document of an encounter between a little rabbit and his willful toy reads a little creepy, especially when the grotesque clown head breaks free from its box and starts smashing up Jack's room. Spiegelman has done better in the children's book form—his Open Me, I'm A Dog is a new classic—but while Jack And The Box is too simplistic and bizarre, it is, as expected, impeccably designed… B-

Much like volume one, The Nightmare Factory: Volume 2 (Fox Atomic) marries horror stories by Thomas Ligotti with commissioned art, this time by Vasilis Lolos, Lee Loughridge, Rico Renzi, and ringer Bill Sienkiewicz. The art this time around looks less accomplished—even on Sienkiewicz's entry, which leans heavily on grainy, low-resolution extreme close-ups, for a deliberately headachy look—and the stories are still text-heavy, talky, and not prone to going anywhere specific; they still feel like Lovecraft stories, but also a little like lost Clive Barker Books Of Blood adaptations, stretched out to twice the length, and with the last page or two removed. The best of the bunch is the first story, "Gas Station Carnivals," which plays with reality, then twists it around in a knot until it's no longer clear what's really going on, which works because the confusion is less frustrating than the utterly straightforward lack of confusion of the other stories… C-


Remember the board-books of youth, those sturdy, clunky little trainer books for babies, with maybe six or eight heavy cardboard "pages" total? Brian Greene's Icarus At The Edge Of Time (Knopf) is a serious oddity: a board book for adults. It has a total of 17 thick cardboard "pages," printed with beautiful space shots courtesy of the Hubble telescope; around the edges, Greene presents a short story about a boy venturing close to a black hole and inadvertently learning about singularities and time. The whole idea seems like something Stephen Hawking might have conceived: a rudimentary lesson in advanced Einstein, built around a Greek myth and a book design (courtesy of Chip Kidd) that recalls the safe comforts of childhood. It's a beautiful package, but a very weird concept, and both the style of the writing and the concept of the book feel a bit patronizing. Then again, getting American adults interested in science is hard; maybe the picture-book concept is what they need. C+

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